立場新聞 Stand News

Dancing to my own tune: pursuing artistic freedom in an increasingly repressive Hong Kong

2019/2/21 — 13:54

tammy tam,圖片來源:US-China Policy Foundation 片段截圖

tammy tam,圖片來源:US-China Policy Foundation 片段截圖

【By Michelle Ng】

“Let me try and make her look like a ballerina,” Youtuber ballet coach Claudia Dean mused as she adjusted her sister' s shoulders, elbows, hands and neck - her sister had no dance training, and the point of the video was to show how ballet looked like when attempted by a layperson .

Dean said she did the video for fun. Indeed, many times during her broadcast, she literally collapsed to the floor laughing, so amused she was by the sight of her sister wobbling and stumbling while making a go at ballet. Yet underneath all the hilarity, Dean is making a serious point: ballet may seem effortless on stage, but it' s all an illusion. 


I thought of Dean and her sister as I set myself upon the task of editing a column written by The South China Morning Post chief editor Tammy Tam(https://michellengwritings.wordpress.com/2019/02/19/my-editing-of-a-column-by-scmp-chief-editor-tammy-tam/) .  As an English writing coach, I' d long been aware of the amateurish quality of Tam' s writing, and one day, it occurred to me, why not use her weekly column as teaching material ? As I re-worked her copy - changing this word to add more oomph, modulating the tone of that sentence to make her sound more assured - I felt I was Dean adjusting her sister into a ballerina' s standing position. I was giving Tam the poise of a writer.


It was while I was in the thick of deciphering the intended meaning of Tam words and rewriting them into coherent utterances that I gained a sense of Tam' s ineptitude as a writer: whatever Tam had applied herself to in the past, toiling at the keyboard - so necessary a part of any writer' s growth - wasn' t one of them. So, just as some people think any able-bodied person can lift her leg and “dance”, Tam probably approached column-writing assuming any literate person can string sentences together and “write.” Is it therefore any surprise that you find one of her readers groaning “(Tam' s) columns are just too hard to read ... no rhythm or natural flow,” and another grumbling she has to“continuously go back and read a sentence or two to make sense of (Tam' s writing)” (https://geoexpat.com/forum/342/thread332141.html) ?

How did someone with Tam' s shoddy English got herself installed as the chief editor of an English-language paper in a cosmopolitan city ? In recent years, Beijing has made many moves to curtail the freedom of expression in Hong Kong (https://www.hkja.org.hk/en/hkjas-news/publications/annual-report/) ; Tam’s appointment can be understood as just one of such measures. And from Beijing' s point of view, the need to have a loyalist helm the SCMP is so pressing that the optics of Tam dancing like Dean' s sister in the paper every week is of negligible importance.

Unlike the antics of Dean' s sister, however, Tam' s performances aren' t funny. Quite the contrary, to me they bring home a sobering truth : either I pursue the lonely path of the independent writer and live with the risks this path entails, or I seek safety in numbers and - since I seem to do a better job of coping with Tam' s copy than her current sub-editor - I could, say, get a job at the SCMP, where the the multitude of recent new hires rival“the cast of Ben Hur”and the budget is “staggering” (https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/dec/07/china-plan-for-global-media-dominance-propaganda-xi-jinping). 

I should therefore ask myself, why stay on the road less traveled? The stock answer, of course, is, “I want the freedom of expression.” But to explain how this desire has come to emerge as the driving force in my life despite trying political circumstances, I first have to show how it plays out in me. The closest I can come to do so is to compare it with what the dancer-turned-ballet-historian Jennifer Homans has said about “the exhilarating sense of liberation” that acts as a drug on dancers and draws them to their physically and low-paying profession: “If the coordination and musicality, muscular impulse and timing were exactly right, the body would take over. I could let go.” This is how writing is like for me too, when I throw caution to the wind, allow random thoughts and images to slowly coalesce into an order of their own, and wait for my writing to write itself. The satisfaction that comes when something as hard as writing not only appear effortless to the reader but also feels effortless to the writer - I have yet to know a life experience that can top this. 

Now, imagine a change of scene : I' m working at an outfit where someone with Tam' s abilities is there to make sure no one steps out of line; surely, the mere sight of her is enough to deter me from setting my imagination into motion. This would mean an annihilation of what I prize most in life. Admittedly, out on my own in the shadow of an increasingly authoritarian China, I have no idea how long I can hold out - but I hope it can be forever.
(Link to my editing of a Tammy Tam column)


(Michelle Ng (吳若琦)is an Oxford-educated bilingual writer in Hong Kong. She also teaches English writing - she can give anyone the poise of a writer. She can be reached at [email protected]